Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate) Review
French West Africa, 1938. Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is the policeman in charge of the small, mostly native-inhabited village of Bourkassa. He is put upon by everyone, not least his wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran), and by everyone else in town. Then one day, the worm turns.
Firstly, titles. The French name for this film isn’t easily translatable into English, which is perhaps why this Tavernier film is often simply referred to by its original title – that’s certainly the case on the Criterion edition I refer to below. In English it is often known as Clean Slate, which is how it was shown in British cinemas in 1982, though Optimum’s DVD renders the title as Clean Up. Jim Thompson’s original novel is called Pop. 1280, but the French translation is 1275 âmes. Quite why five souls were lost in translation is a mystery. Confused? It’ll be Coup de torchon from now on.
Bertrand Tavernier has a reputation, rightly, as a humanist director. As with his great compatriot Jean Renoir, he gives considerable space to his characters and everyone has their reasons. That’s true even with a film as dark and seemingly cynical as this one. It threw critics into a loop on its first release – certainly in Britain, as the only two Tavernier films released up to then had been The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul, previously reviewed, and Une semaine de vacances, which is as warm-hearted a film as you can ask for. (Just to prevent nitpicks, the English-language SF film Death Watch, made in 1980, had a belated and limited UK release the same year, 1982.) Some of the tone of Coup de torchon may well have come from the darker sensibility of its source novelist, but Tavernier’s African transplantation of US pulp (filmed in Senegal) is more typical of its director than first appears. Maybe if The Judge and the Assassin had found a UK release nearer the time of its making, then the darkness and violence of Coup de torchon would have been less of a surprise. Coup de torchon takes the subject matter of noir and turns it into character study. (This isn’t the first French version of a Thompson novel: Alain Courneau, with co-scripting from Georges Perec, filmed A Hell of a Woman as Série noire, sharing with Coup de torchon its DP, Pierre William Glenn.)
Tavernier, co-writing with his regular partner Jean Aurenche, gives the film a circular structure, with Cordier watching some native children. At the beginning he lights a fire when they are scared of a near-total solar eclipse. (Nitpick point: an opening title sets the film in July 1938, but there wasn’t a solar eclipse in that month. There was one on 29 May of that year, but it was visible further south in Africa.) At the end of the film, he watches the native children again and considers shooting them. In between, everything in Cordier’s world has changed. Tavernier paces his film with a characteristic slow burn, reflecting his roots in classical French and Hollywood cinema: place, characters and motivations are established before the plot kicks into gear, when Cordier shoots dead a couple of pimps who had humiliated him. And once he has the taste for killing, he carries on from where he started.
Coup de torchon was Tavernier’s sixth feature, and the fourth in which Philippe Noiret had played the lead role. Tavrnier instructed the actor to play the role as if each scene was in a separate film, something Noiret found disconcerting but which works perfectly. Since her last major role for Tavernier in The Judge and the Assassin (leaving out an uncredited part in 1977’s contemporary-set Des enfants gates aka Spoiled Children), Isabelle Huppert had become a big star in French cinema, breaking through in The Lacemaker. By then she had established a still-ongoing working relationship with Claude Chabrol with her Cannes-winning lead role in Violette Nozière, had worked for Godard and Pialat and had gone over to the States to make Heaven’s Gate. (There’s an unintended irony in that playing Cordier’s wife is Chabrol’s then-regular leading lady and playing his mistress is his future regular.) Playing a harder-edged role than she was normally cast in, Huppert is a strong and effective foil to Noiret, and they’re backed up by a solid supporting cast. Tavernier regulars Philippe Sarde (music score) and Pierre William Glenn (cinematography) do characteristically fine work as well.
Given the storyline, anyone expecting hard-edged thrills will likely find Coup de torchon too slow, and it’s not really funny enough to the black comedy some claim it to be. However, it’s a key film in Tavernier’s career.
Coup de torchon is one of five Tavernier films released by Optimum. It comprises a single dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
Optimum present the film in an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.66:1 However, of the five films, this one has a rival English-friendly edition in print: Criterion’s Region 0 release from 2001. This causes a puzzle over the film’s intended aspect ratio. Criterion’s packaging says that its DVD is in the intended aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and is approved by Tavernier...but it is actually in 1.75:1 I can well believe that 1.66:1 would be favoured by Tavernier, as it is by many other French directors. He had used it before in The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul and would use it again for Sunday in the Country. (However, Let Joy Reign Supreme is apparently in 1.85:1 and I have not seen Spoiled Children and have no information on its ratio. All his other features prior to L/627 are in Scope, with the possible exception of La passion Béatrice, which I have also not seen.)
Ratio apart, there is little to tell apart the two transfers. The Criterion is a little darker with colours a little more saturated – particularly noticeable in the skin tones of the white characters - but both are very good. Screengrabs follow, Optimum first.
The Criterion does crop the image (compared to the Optimum) slightly, but on the whole Tavernier and Glenn don’t go in for ultra-precise composition – which would probably not have been feasible anyway, given that the film was largely shot using a Steadicam.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and again no problems to report. Dialogue is clear and the track well balanced. The Optimum has the usual miserly eight chapter stops, while the Criterion has thirty-five. In both cases English subtitles are optional.
The Optimum features two extras. First is the video introduction, as usual split into two parts. The first is in common with Optimum’s other four Tavernier releases and runs fourteen minutes. The second eighteen minutes (starting at chapter two) is specific to Coup de torchon. Tavernier discusses adapting Thompson to an African setting (a French one was unworkable as they don’t have the equivalent of a Western sheriff there), filming in a foreign country and working again with Noiret and Huppert. As before, Tavernier tends to digress, but he is worth sticking with. The second extra is the very grainy theatrical trailer (2:28), containing specially-shot scenes where Cordier speaks to camera. In comparison, the Criterion has the trailer, a different video interview with Tavernier, a print essay by Michael Dare, and Tavernier discussing clips from a very strange alternative ending, shot but wisely never used. The latter is worth a look once, but otherwise I’ll call this one a draw.
8 out of 10
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